My first experience of retro football shirts was also my first experience of The Square Ball. My mum bought TSB for me because it had Cantona on the cover (social services didn’t press the matter), and on the back page was an ad for ‘Authentic Arkwright Sportswear,’ offering replica 60s and 70s Leeds shirts and a late-blooming flower design that copped the logo of indie band James. They had another advert inside for exotic foreign shirts: for £34.99 you could have the many stripes of Gremio, the Hullesque Nova Horizonte home, or a Kaiserslautern kit that looked like a Commodore 64 loading screen. It all seemed a bit odd to me: who wanted an old kit, never mind a kit that wasn’t even Leeds?
My childish scepticism was soon demolished. The Premier League popularity explosion met an explosion of bad kit design, and the classic styles offered by Toffs and Score Draw were a relief. It had been a bit cool for years to wear a retro shirt – Half Man Half Biscuit sang ‘All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit’ in 1986, performing in old Ajax tops until Toffs eventually made the Dukla away; one of Prolapse, a band straight outta Leicester, wore a Sampdoria shirt. But retro was a tough proposition for Leeds.
The simple beauty of ‘borrowing’ Real Madrid’s kit became a curse on those who sought to make Leeds shirts vaguely fashionable: how do you jazz up a white shirt? Nostalgic fans had few options for looking suave. John Charles’ blue and yellow shirts were too rugbyish. The red away kits of the early 60s were definitely out, and Don said birds are unlucky which forbade the owl badge, and the peacock and pinstripes from 82. That left a white t-shirt with LUFC on it, or the floppy collars of the smiley era.
That was, until Score Draw finally made the 1992 Champions shirt available. The YEP shirt wasn’t sold in 92, because Fotherby had gotten into bed with Admiral before having the break-up drink with Umbro. Fans snapped up the 2009 retro version, longing for happier times as we lurched around League One, and the club discovered there was gold in that there old polyester. Panning for more, they looked back a season or two, to the FA Cup Semi Final, the play-offs with Charlton, John Sheridan striding peerless through the Elland Road mud…
The 86-88 ‘Burton’ kits are odd outfits. They shouldn’t work. Umbro really cocked around with the famous all-white – triangles, a centred badge, a seam across the middle, everything short of sticking a hoop around it and a stripe down the side – yet somehow, they’re classics. It helps that the Umbro logos reside modestly on the sleeves – compare the pile-up on the chest of modern Adidas shirts. Blue and yellow always look smart together, and the triangles on the chest are perfect foils for the milk-smooth shirts. The football in a Yorkshire rose is centre of attention; even the Burton logo looks good.
The real triumph was the away. Blue above the seam, burnished gold below; gold echoed in the collar and chevrons, where also nestled a touch of white. This shirt does something to me. Maybe it’s phoney nostalgia: I missed Sheridan and Snodin by a few months, giving them a close mystique different to the Revie era; there was the Bremner factor too, as Billy’s second coming represented glory days in the eighties mire. Maybe it felt unique to Leeds: Ipswich and Forest used the same template as the Top Man promotion kit, but nobody else had these. Or so I always thought.
Kit nostalgia brought kit nostalgia websites, and the horrifying discovery that Umbro had pimped this template around Scotland like a new Proclaimers LP. Maybe they thought we’d never notice: never see the yellow and red monster of Partick Thistle; or the green and white mixtures sold like cheap whisky to Celtic (a 3rd kit, in 1986!) and Hibs. It was painful to learn that my favourite kit had this secret life in Scotland, had these bastard sons: these Scottish Kits.
The Leeds kit remains lush, though, and in demand. Second hand ‘Repli-Kits’ – Umbro sold them in boxes, as if they required self-assembly – have fetched £150 on eBay; I treat my original home shirt (£35, bargain) like a sacred relic (i.e. only I am allowed to spill beer on it). The retro versions are great cheap alternatives; but the home shirt has an unforgivable error. Old photos show variations – the Burton logo would move a bit, the badge could be on or over the seam, Mark Aizlewood even had a shirt with the badge sewn upside down, the twat – but the collar trim was always yellow. On the new version it is inexplicably white. It may sound trivial – because it is – but I won’t be buying this accursed abortion. The away is fine. The Umbro logos are obviously gone for contractual reasons, and the material is no longer the superheroic sounding ‘Tactel Nylon’; but the triangles and badge have been placed just right and the Burton logo feels slightly tacky, just like the original. Half a centimetre has gone off the width of the collar, though: I suppose they have to cater to the fashionable, as well as the pedantic. It’s good enough for me, anyway. In this shirt I can, at last, feel John Sheridan; I can, finally, be Ken de Mange.
From The Square Ball magazine 2010/11 issue one.